Nicholas D. More’s Nietzsche’s Last Laugh: Ecce Homo as Satire – Review By Dirk R. Johnson

41t8m0onbrl-_sx329_bo1204203200_Nicholas More’s study of Ecce Homo is one of only a handful of monographs devoted to this often-overlooked text. No doubt Nietzsche’s controversial autobiography, if such a conventional term can be used to designate such an idiosyncratic work, does not receive the level of attention as his two contemporaneous writings, Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist. More gives compelling reasons for this scholarly disregard. Ecce Homo, for one, reveals the author at his most immodest and self-celebratory. A scholar interested in burnishing Nietzsche’s philosophical credibility will have to defend pronouncements that border on the delusional or megalomaniacal. Further, the work lists banal concerns—weather, nutrition, the author’s reading list—seemingly unworthy of philosophical reflection. Finally, Ecce Homo is difficult to classify—is it meant as philosophy? Is it a new form of autobiography? Or is it literary satire (4-5)? And these questions raise perhaps the most far-reaching objection: Should one take it seriously at all, even if it includes many valuable passages that give important insights into his earlier works and his overall philosophical self-assessment? More sets out to address, and rebut, these objections, and in the process gives one of the most cogent arguments for why Nietzsche’s text should not only be taken seriously but, beyond that, why we should recognize its value as philosophy. More not only wishes to rethink Ecce Homo on its own terms and to appreciate its many merits; on a more ambitious level, he believes that we can better understand his overall philosophical aims by taking into account the literary strategies he employs to such brilliant effect in Ecce Homo.

Ecce Homo is a slim volume, and a significant part of the text deals with Nietzsche’s retroactive assessment of his prior writings and his attempt to press upon them an inner coherence and sense of necessity. It might seem, then, that this particular work does not demand the kind of close, at times page-by-page reading that More presents. And yet, his careful, incisive analysis as well as his patient devotion to detail and nuances of the text will ensure that this study remains one of the most thorough readings of Ecce Homo for quite some time. In addition, his elegant study is free of academic jargon, is extremely readable and succinct, and is attuned to, and appreciative of, the literary value of Nietzsche’s late work. In the barrage of studies on Nietzsche and single works in his corpus, this analysis stands out for its combination of intelligence, precision and rigor.

More starts by assessing the relevant previous studies of the text. “Ecce Homo,” he writes, “is the enfant perdu of Nietzsche books, and the secondary literature partially reflects this unfortunate state of affairs” (8). He breaks down reception into five main groups—analytical, deconstructive, psychological, biographical and reconstructive—and argues that the analytic school of Nietzsche has shown the least interest in this text, as it “does not appear to introduce any new doctrines or theories”, while the deconstructionists have focused more on it, “perhaps due to its marginalized status” (9). Of the deconstructionists, he examines both Derrida and Kofman, with particular attention to the latter. Employing psychology’s methods and offering a highly subjective take, Kofman’s ideas are promising, More argues, but her work almost “defies discussion because it prefers pronouncements to discourse” (12). Conventional psychologist interpretations of the text, on the other hand, are the most devastating: one such reading claims that Ecce Homo illustrates “the fact that [Nietzsche] had lost his grasp on reality and become completely immersed in himself”; another suggests that it is “such a strident book as to be almost unreadable” (12-13). Prominent biographers of Nietzsche (Hollingdale, Safranski, and Young) also take “suspicious views of Ecce Homo,” judging the author as mentally unhinged at the time of its composition (13), and More looks at several other critical readings, including by Nehamas (in a chapter of Nietzsche: Life as Literature), Conway and Ridley. More shows greatest sympathy for Conway, though the latter focuses on the role of “self-parody” rather than recognize the numerous other targets Nietzsche singles out for explicit parody (16-17).

More then moves on to interpretation, starting with the important “question of genre” (Chapter 2). More’s argument: Nietzsche’s text belongs to the genre of literary satire. After discussing various theories, in particular the writings by Frye and Bakhtin on the subject, More examines the wide range of stylistic devices that would place this text within the confines of literary satire. According to More, Nietzsche fulfills eleven of the fourteen satiric characteristics as defined by Bakhtin. “In Ecce Homo, we encounter a militant and ironic experience toward painful experience, the free play of intellectual fancy, violent dislocations in the so-called autobiographical narrative, a fantasy of fame, and persistent attacks on universalizing moralists on a carnival ride of hyperbolic language and allusion. The work also transcends and mixes the genres of philosophy, autobiography, book review, polemic and panegyric” (32).

Above all, More attempts to render explicable Nietzsche’s numerous egocentric statements that make it difficult to appreciate this text as philosophy. More suggests these dismissive verdicts are due to an erroneous, though entrenched conception of what constitutes philosophy and the true focus of philosophical reflection. Ecce Homo in some ways represents a watershed in the history of the tradition in that it gestures toward a new modus of philosophical representation. Of course, the novelty of it remains disturbing for those readers who continue to think within the categories of (academic) philosophy and thus judge the pronouncements of Ecce Homo as beyond the pale. With More’s approach, however, the text can be newly assessed as performance: Nietzsche as literary provocateur, who self-consciously plays with, ridicules and parodies all that philosophy, and the Western tradition, has held sacrosanct so far: “If Nietzsche parodies philosophy through closed-cleaved imitation, he would further several of his intellectual goals. He would undercut philosophy’s pretensions to absolute truth by sounding cocksure of himself while exposing grounds for doubt; would protect his own positions from charges of dogmatism by subverting the authority of all philosophers (himself included); and would stake a claim as one of the most ingenious stylists and original thinkers in Western history: a person who seriously pursued philosophy while he mocked it” (28). The work’s hyperbolic, over-the-top statements, to that end, achieve a specific meaning and purpose: as conventional forms of satiric self-representation.

The remainder of the study is devoted to a close reading of each section of the text, starting with its title and subtitle. More gives critical background to the work and its multiple meanings, and explores the range of sources that Nietzsche drew from, without foisting a single interpretation on his findings. Although committed to the case that Nietzsche’s book was satiric in intent, More presents a wide-ranging and nuanced examination. Even a scholar not convinced by his argument will gain from this approach, since it brings both new aspects of the text to light and presents rich readings that will stimulate further critical reflection. After parsing the preliminary autobiographical sections (the “Why I … ?” chapters), More contrasts each of the retrospective accounts of his prior writings in Ecce Homo with the new prefaces he composed for many of his works two years earlier. Throughout these contrasting sections, More emphasizes the parodic aspect of Nietzsche’s efforts and pays particular attention to the literary qualities of his “autobiography.” This focus on style does not prevent us from appreciating the philosophical dimension of his positions. On the contrary: it reinforces the obvious point that Nietzsche never separated out the question of style from his overall philosophical agenda but rather regarded style as an integral component of the new form of philosophy he sought to promote.

Although I agree with many of More’s points, I would question a central feature of his position. I do not think that this needs to discredit the case he presents, but I would suggest it as a possible alternative reading, one that should enhance his argument, while distancing itself from his almost exclusive focus on the role of satire. In his evaluation of the secondary literature, More refers to Nehamas’s influential reading, which he praises, though with considerable reservations (14-15). In some ways, this is surprising, since it seems that his study owes much to Nehamas’s central premise: namely, that Nietzsche, immersed in the literary tradition, treated “life as literature” and the world as a form of text, on which he made his mark with great flair and panache. More’s study, in turn, presents a Nietzsche imbued with a deep awareness of the literary and the classical traditions and the ambition to innovate philosophy by drawing from, and enriching, the stylistic legacies of those traditions. By self-consciously entering into the discourse with parodic intent, Nietzsche was treating “life as satire,” reducing all the “greats” to “idols” he could topple on his self-appointed stage. (There are echoes, here, of another postmodern reading of Nietzsche, Peter Sloterdijk’s provocative Thinker on Stage (Germany, 1986), though More does not refer to him in his bibliography.)

As appealing and compelling as such readings are, they fail to consider the following questions: Why is it that Nietzsche has to see “life as literature” at all, and could it be that Nietzsche instead had fought himself through to a higher position, one that sees “life as life”—in all its tragedy, terror, randomness and complexity? Rather, postmodern readings diminish his deeper awareness of reality, informed by his ten-year science-based explorations into man and nature, and relegate Nietzsche into a forlorn figure whose only “stage” is his literary imagination and main motive his literary ambition. Not only does this reinforce the unchallenged supremacy of the scientific ethos in our age, i.e., that the only domain of “truth” can be scientific truth and the rest can only be literary fictions, but it fails to fathom the radical nature of his insights and to do justice to his final position, which was not only a literary triumph, but a spiritual one as well. Of course, this means we will need to take Nietzsche’s pronouncements (even at their most extreme and unsettling) seriously; but it doesnt mean that the latter can’t also be parodic, hyperbolic, self-deprecating and satiric, as More suggests. For that, in fact, is Nietzsche’s Dionysian stance, post-Zarathustra: a person who—with newly-attained, affirmative wisdom—can play with great matters: “I do not know any other way of handling great tasks than as play: as a sign of greatness this is an essential presupposition” (EH Clever 10). This does not mean that those matters are reduced to literary contrivances; no, it means that they are real, existent, and truly of this world—but that Nietzsche’s deeper awareness of them allows him to treat them with a superior, übermenschlich form of humanity that acknowledges their historical power but not their power over him: “[H]ow Zarathustra descends and says the most gracious things [das Gütigste] to everybody! How gently he handles even his adversaries, the priests, and suffers with them and from them! At every moment here, humanity has been overcome, the idea of ‘overman’ has become the highest reality” (EH Zarathustra 6) (emphasis mine). Surely, the Nietzsche of Ecce Homo might be disturbing, frightening, and, for some, in need of explanation or justification; but it is a Nietzsche that has entered history, not only literature, with consequences not yet foreseen.

My qualification should not detract from More’s excellent monograph. I have already indicated its numerous merits. As an incisive study of a difficult and often misunderstood late text, it is a work that should be read, and it will greatly enhance our understanding of Nietzsche’s literary ambitions and his rich arsenal of stylistic devices. But we should be willing to take Nietzsche at his word in Ecce Homo; he should remain an uncomfortable “read” if we are to plumb to the depths of his provocative insights. This study will be a good first step in that direction.

Books mentioned:

—Conway, Daniel. “Nietzsche’s Doppelgänger: Affirmation and Resentment in Ecce Homo.” In K. Ansell-Pearson (ed.), The Fate of the New Nietzsche. Brookfield, VT: Avebury, 1993. 55-78.

—Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoyevskys Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

—Derrida, Jacques. “Otobiographies. The Teaching of Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of the Proper Name.” In Harold Bloom (ed.), Friedrich Nietzsche: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 105-34.

—Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Four Essays. New York: Athenaeum, 1967.

—Kofman, Sarah. “Explosion I: Of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo,” trans. Duncan Large. In Daniel W. Conway (ed.), Nietzsche: Critical Assessments. London: Routledge, 1998. 218-41.

—Nehamas, Alexander. Nietzsche: Life as Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.